John Kirby led a most unusual group during the height of the big-band era, a sextet comprised of trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, altoist Russell Procope, pianist Billy Kyle, drummer O'Neil Spencer and his own bass. Although Shavers and Bailey could be quite extroverted, the tightly arranged ensembles tended to be very cool-toned and introverted yet virtuosic.
Kirby, originally a tuba player, switched to bass in 1930 when he joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. He was one of the better bassists of the 1930s, playing with Henderson (1930-33 and 1935-36) and Chick Webb's big band (1933-35).
John Kirby was born in Winchester, VA in 1908 and died in Hollywood, California in 1952. His musical gifts were recognized early and he was encouraged to pursue them. As a young child he was given a trombone and he quickly became proficient-- so proficient, in fact, that in 1924 at the age of 16, with only his trombone and a few dollars to his name, Kirby picked up and hitchhiked to New York City. Unfortunately, on his first night in the big city, his trombone was stolen and he was forced to take all sorts of menial jobs to survive.
Despite these hardships though, Kirby somehow managed to acquire a tuba and soon became so proficient a player of this instrument that by 1929, he was good enough to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. He then switched to the string bass, which was common for tubists at that time, and shortly thereafter became one of the most in-demand bassists in town.
In 1937, having worked for many years in small groups and the big bands of Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Lucky Millinder, Kirby made his breakthrough from sideman to leader -- which ultimately led to both his personal success and national fame. With an as yet nonexistent band, Kirby approached Joe Helbock, part owner of the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, for an engagement. Kirby, notoriously charming and affable was evidently first rate at stating his case: Helbock gave Kirby's band an audition. Kirby went back to Harlem to Lenox Avenue's Brittwood Bar and Grill (adjacent to the Savoy) and took the personnel he wanted out of the Blue Rhythm Band. As his soon-to-be-wife Maxine Sullivan stated, "he went into the band and left with it." He took Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Don Frye and others with him as a group to the Onyx Club audition and, of course, landed the job.